One of the great contradictions of the telecoms business in the 21st century is that voice - the industry’s core competency and indeed the very service on which the industry was built - remains in high demand yet revenues are going down. For mobile in particular, voice minutes are practically an add-on to SMS and/or data plans in most markets - and those minutes are competing with free OTT apps like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber, to name a few.
Yet the telecoms voice business isn’t fading away, and the technology continues to evolve. VoLTE (voice over LTE) had been rolled out by 82 operators in 43 markets, according to the latest figures from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). But while it offers better spectrum efficiencies for cellcos and high-quality audio for end-users, for the most part VoLTE is still not really much of a revenue generator beyond what standard circuit-switched voice was hauling in.
Now, we’re seeing the rise of another permutation of voice: Wi-Fi calling.
The latest example as we went to press was Hong Kong’s SmarTone, which launched a Wi-Fi calling service in August. The service allows customers to connect up to five personal devices without SIM cards - including tablets, computers and smart watches - to make voice calls via Wi-Fi connections. The service works on any access point, and the calls can be seamlessly transferred to a user’s smartphones. The service also supports multiple simultaneous calls using the same number.
The SmarTone Wi-Fi calling is the latest in a string of similar services in Asia-Pacific. Wi-Fi calling has also been launched in the US - and according to an Ericsson ConsumerLab survey of basic Wi-Fi calling users in the US, four in five respondents are “very satisfied” with the service.
The ability to make phone calls over Wi-Fi may not seem like a big deal - until you realize that we’re not talking about Skype calls here. In fact, Wi-Fi calling offers cellcos not only a way to improve indoor coverage for their customers, but also a way to compete with OTT voice apps - possibly to the point of actually monetizing it by getting back into the roaming game.
This ain’t OTT
It’s worth pausing here to explain the difference between Wi-Fi calling and OTT voice apps.
From the user standpoint, Wi-Fi calling - a.k.a. voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) - enables callers to use the same dialer on their mobile phone to make voice calls, says Stefan Svensson, director of communication services at Ericsson. “So the user experience will be the same as on the cellular network, as they can use their existing mobile number and call any other number as usual. The need to for a separate app is eliminated, which also means any separate registration or login is avoided, as regular SIM-based authentication and authorization is used.”
That said, Svensson adds - and as the SmarTone example above illustrates - SIM cards aren’t a prerequisite for Wi-Fi calling to work.
“With the latest upgrade of Ericsson’s Wi-Fi calling solution, operator voice services can now also be supported on devices without a SIM card. Users can make operator voice calls over any Wi-Fi access point using Wi-Fi only devices, such as tablets and laptops,” Svensson says, though he notes that this option does require new software to be installed on those devices.
The basic objective is to give customers another access link to make calls (without having to worry about what link is being used) on whatever device they happen to be using. SmarTone CTO Stephen Chau described it as a convenience play for customers: “We believe the new capability to extend our voice service to devices without a SIM-card is adding genuine convenience to our customers.”